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Holkham Bible

This celebrated picture-book tells the Biblical story in Norman French, with the help of copious illustrations of everyday 14th-century England. Originally intended as a visual aid for popular preachers, it is now a fascinating glimpse of real life in the time of Chaucer.

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Holkham Bible

Holkham Bible, London?, England, second quarter of the 14th century. Noah and the Ark 
BL Add. MS 47682, ff. 7v.8 
Copyright © The British Library Board

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What is the Holkham Bible?

The Holkham Bible tells highlights of the Bible story, from Creation, through the life of Jesus, to the Last Judgment. It is only loosely based on the Bible, and includes plenty of apocryphal episodes, especially about Jesus's early life. It does this with brief text that is part prose, part poetry, and most importantly, with a unique sequence of illustrations that draw many of their details from everyday life.

The book was probably made in London in the mid-14th century, round about the time of Geoffrey Chaucer's birth.

The Dominican friar for whom the illustrations were made, perhaps as a teaching aid for the rich and powerful, is depicted at the opening of the Bible instructing the artist, 'Now do it well and thoroughly, for it will be shown to important people'.

For many years the Bible was in the library of Holkham House, Norfolk, pictured here in a print from 1818

Why isn't it in English?

To help the friar as he explained the stories to his audience, the illustrations are accompanied by brief explanatory texts in Anglo-Norman French, the literary language most familiar to contemporary English nobles. The book was definitely written for an English audience, because when the shepherds at Bethlehem hear the angelic 'Te Deum', they break into English.

Separate episodes are sometimes conflated in a single illustration, as with the dove on the right of the pictures illustrated here. It is seen being released by Noah, finding an olive branch and returning holding the branch in its beak.

What was Anglo-Norman French?

After the Norman Conquest of 1066, the ruling and upper classes in England (hitherto a land of dialects of Anglo-Saxon, also called Old English) spoke an imported dialect of medieval French, now usually called Anglo-Norman. It rapidly developed into the language of record (the Domesday Book is written in Anglo-Norman), instruction and literature. Anglo-Norman persisted until the 14th century, when it was replaced as the language of authority by Chaucer's Middle English. Factors included the assimilation of Normans into the mainstream, and the rise of English-speaking commoners to fill positions of power left vacant by the Black Death.

English as we know it today still shows the cultural legacy of Anglo-Norman in its enriched vocabulary. This is seen, for example, in the complementary 'Anglo-Saxon' words for an animal (cow, pig, sheep) and the 'French' words for the meat from each one (beef, pork, mutton).

What are the pictures like?

The costumes, tools, weapons and buildings in the pictures are those of 14th-century England. They give an near documentary-style representation of many early occupations such as dyer, smith, carpenter and midwife; the people could almost step right out of the page and perform a medieval miracle play in front of us.

A blacksmith's wife forging a nail, from the Holkham Bible

Some of the pictures are surprisingly light-hearted, such as a delightful picture of the infant Jesus sliding down a sunbeam, and miraculously outdoing his playmates in other ways.